Conversations with the brain
Optogenetics also holds the potential to treat tens of millions of people with epilepsy and other brain disorders. Part of the problem with traditional neuroprosthetic techniques is that it is difficult to electrically stimulate the nervous system and record electrical neural activity at the same time. It is like trying to hear someone whisper while shouting at them at the top of your voice. But with optogenetics it is possible to stimulate using light without affecting the electrical recording. This means it is now effectively possible have a conversation directly with the brain.
A key early application is epilepsy. We intend to send signals to sections of the brain exhibiting seizure-like behaviour that tell them to calm down. In the world-leading CANDO project, we hope to be the first team to try this technique in epileptic patients in 2021. If it works, it will be a life-changing treatment to those whom drugs have proved ineffective.
In the coming decades, we will see neuroprosthetics increasingly combined with gene therapies such as optogenetics and possibly even stem-cell therapies. Even traditional pharmaceutical companies are starting to explore the possibilities of bioelectronic medicine –- stimulating the body’s own organs to produce therapeutic biochemicals. The advantage this brings is that it will allow doctors increasingly to personalise treatment, at least for certain conditions.
For those who have been brought up with films such as Blade Runner, we might have expected all humans to now be enhanced and augmented with bionic implants. In reality, we are a long way off this vision of the future. On the other hand, science fiction authors are only beginning to catch up with the reality of genetically enhanced bionics. In the end, nature is difficult to beat, but if we can bring back near-normal function to the disabled it could radically improve their lives.